Rugby League: Blood and Thunder encounter

Dave Hadfield says Castleford may pay for their coach's outburst
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT IS a quirk - some of the old school would say an anomaly - of Super League's play-off system that the games that really matter between now and the end of the regulation season will be those that affect fifth place.

By that measurement, they do not come much bigger than Castleford's visit to Gateshead this afternoon. Cas are the team at present in possession of the last place in the play-off lifeboat; Gateshead, despite a major hiccup at Halifax last week, the side most likely to tip them overboard.

The two teams have a bit of previous. The Thunder's first ever match was a friendly at Wheldon Road and, in April, they went back there to grab two precious competition points. If today's is built up as some sort of make-or-break grudge match, the Castleford coach, Stuart Raper, has himself largely to blame. After that defeat, he criticised Gateshead for their style of play, telling them that they might win a few matches but that they would attract few spectators.

He was only partly right. The Thunder have continued to win more than they lose, but gates like the 6,000-plus who saw them beat St Helens last month show that, slowly and uncertainly, they are starting to build up a support base in the North-east. "I was a bit disappointed and shot my mouth off, as I've been known to do," Raper says of his outburst that day. "I don't take my words back. They do have a fairly boring style of play, but I never said they weren't a good rugby league team. Their defence in that match was outstanding."

What made Raper's attack on the Thunder all the more startling was that he and the club's chief executive, Shane Richardson, go back a long way. "It was Shane who first gave me my chance in coaching at Cronulla. We had a few words at Castleford," he says. Raper also coached Gateshead's Ben Sammut and Matt Daylight in the lower grades at Cronulla, so the affair has the flavour of an internecine quarrel. That club is certainly in his blood and his new contract to stay with Castleford for another two years does not change his long-term ambition to coach there.

"I was hoping in a way that the opportunity would come up next year, but they're going so well that they had to re-sign John Lang. I'll have to bide my time and what better place to do it?"

Although he makes no secret of his eventual departure plans, Raper is already well along the way to his declared ambition of leaving Cas in a better state than he found them. "Building a club up is a matter of making a lot of small steps. We're a small-town club and we don't have a lot of money - but we've got a lot of hard workers. We've come a long way, but that means that we've just got to work harder than ever."

Few would dispute Castleford's progress over the last two years, but the only way of giving it tangible expression is by making the play-offs. Hence the importance of this afternoon's appointment at the Gateshead International Stadium, where victory would put them four points clear of the Thunder.

Despite his contribution to the hype, Raper plays down the game's significance. "It's way too early to start thinking about the fifth-place scenario. There will still be 10 games to go, so I'm not approaching this game as our Grand Final.

"It's another game for us," he adds. "But it might call for a bit of extra intensity."